Nobody saw it coming. The West African Ebola epidemic that started in 2013—but wasn’t discovered until March 2014—spiraled out of control before the world fully realized what was happening. Ebola experts thought they knew how to end outbreaks of the virus. Even veterans in the field had never warned that a major epidemic could paralyze cities and countries and kill thousands in a matter of months. Governments, health systems, international organizations, and aid groups were all unprepared.
So were journalists. Many reporters had never written about this frightful scourge before, yet they faced an obligation to provide insightful, accurate and balanced stories about the outbreak and its consequences. Many did a stellar job.
This course, published by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) with support from the United States Department of State, was developed to help journalists who are covering the epidemic, or who may write about Ebola in the future. It covers basic knowledge about the virus and the disease, and how to fight it; we also included chapters on where to find good sources, tips and pitfalls, and how to stay safe when reporting from the field. Because there are many misconceptions about drug and vaccine development—which were greatly accelerated during this epidemic—we have written an extensive primer on that topic.
Like so many things in the Ebola outbreak, this course comes too late. It would have been more useful last summer, when Ebola engulfed Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and caused smaller outbreaks elsewhere. As we write this, Liberia hasn’t had a single new Ebola case in more than two weeks, and there is hope that Sierra Leone and Guinea will soon control the virus too. We hope this course will still be useful in the months ahead as well is in future outbreaks, which are certain to come.
In addition, most of the material in these chapters is helpful for anyone covering infectious diseases, and we hope it will inspire fellow journalists to dig deeper. Epidemics are never just about disease; there is always human behavior involved, as well as politics, economics, history, geography, culture, and science. That’s what makes them fascinating to us. We hope others will discover this too.
We would like to thank the WFSJ for its support, and Jon Cohen for critically reading our drafts and providing valuable suggestions.
Helen Branswell and Martin Enserink
Helen Branswell is the medical reporter for The Canadian Press, Canada’s news agency. Based in Ottawa, she covered that city’s 2003 SARS outbreak. She also covered the emergence of H5N1 bird flu and other new influenza viruses, MERS and the ongoing efforts to eradicate polio. Helen also writes about the efforts to develop Ebola vaccines and drugs.
Martin Enserink is a contributing news editor and writer for Science, the weekly magazine. He is currently based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Martin has covered many outbreaks of infectious diseases, including SARS, influenza, and MERS; he has edited most of Science’s news coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.